Speech given at Women’s March on London

On 21st January 2017 I opened the Women’s March on London with a speech about global political challenges and the power women in unifying humanity and to bring about change. This was the first time that I had spoken to such a large crowd – the Met Police estimated around one hundred thousand people marched that day.

Sorry it has taken me a while to post this up, I know some of you wanted access to the speech. Also this is the raw draft that I used to speak from on the day, so it is not written as an article.

“2016 was an awful year with the rise of dog whistle politics, xenophobic rhetoric and politicians and would be leaders who have rose to power on the back of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies.

These same politicians exploited fears and stoked up divisions, in the name getting our country back.

We saw the very real and  dangerous  consequences of the mainstreaming of  xenophobic rhetoric and far right sentiments, with  the brutal murder of Jox Cox. Joe Cox was murdered for her passion for an inclusive society, for her belief that we have more in common.

I’m a British born Muslim woman. growing up in the 80’s I saw my parents regularly attacked by the National Front because of the colour of their skin. Now 30 years later we are living in a climate of fear, being a Muslim woman is very challenging. We (Muslim women) face multiple challenges and multiple prejudices, from structural discrimination to the fact that we more than likely to experience physical and verbal abuse on the street just because of who we are and how we dress.

As of yesterday (20/01/2017) we have a leader of the free world who questions our right to be treated as equal citizens, who wants to deny our basic freedoms and fundamental rights. All minorities, including  immigrants, Eastern Europeans, LGBTQ communities have all faced a backlash from this new nasty politics of fear.

It would be too easy to only focus on the negative, to feel despair and hideaway but do not lose hope. Remember that Women have a long history of being at the forefront of fighting for equality and justice – as we are the ones who suffer the worst consequences of irresponsible men in power. History shows us that Women have changed the world, from the suffragette movement to Rosa Parks heroic act – and we can do it again. Women’s rights are human rights – let’s unite across boundaries of faith, ethnicity, gender and sexuality – for equality and justice for all, in ways that are so powerful, that we will tear down the walls of division that are being built by those who seek to divide us.

We will not let bigotry and hatred overcome us.

This new era of world politics is an opportunity for us to come together not in protest, but in celebration of the strength that our diversity gives us and stand united for justice, equality and peace.”

 

Open Call for Submissions from Muslim Writers

Like so many of you, we are gravely alarmed by the present administration’s recent broad ban on refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries. Our hearts ache for the innocent people affected…

Source: Open Call for Submissions from Muslim Writers

The real dangers of banning the burkini

During the French burkini controversy, I was asked by Mashable to give my thoughts on the dangers of banning the burkini. You can read my comments below and/or the full article here.

“These women are not a security threat, they’re just average French Muslim women,” Akeela Ahmed, a London-based equalities campaigner, said. “They’re penalising French Muslim women for the actions of terrorists. They either go to the beach and not swim or remain isolated in their communities at home.”

 

“Feminists need to get on board with the fact that Muslim women and what they decide to wear is a feminist issue. They should have the freedom to wear what they choose and feminists should call for equality for Muslim women,”

Tackling Ramadan With A Mental Health Condition

I just noticed that I was quoted in the article below, on surviving Ramadan with an eating disorder.

http://www.refinery29.uk/2016/06/114217/ramadan-mental-health

Here is my quote:

“There is still a huge stigma attached to mental illness, along with a lack of understanding of how it manifests and impacts on an individual,” says Akeela Ahmed, the former Executive Director of the Muslim Youth Helpline and campaigner on youth and gender issues. “So often friends and families can expect someone with poor mental health to fast. Most of the people I’ve worked with, who are dealing with mental health issues, feel guilty if they do not fast.”

According to Ahmed, the stigmas associated with mental illnesses in Muslim communities also means that those like Sofia are sometimes left in the dark when it comes to reconciling their conditions and their religious belief. “What I found when I was working with people who had eating disorders was that it wasn’t treated like other physical illnesses” she says. “If you’re physically unwell, then you don’t fast – but those who were dealing with mental illnesses would adjust their schedules to take their medication as part of their suhoor (morning meal) or when they broke their fasts.”

“From my experience, most Muslim people with mental health challenges receive very little support from either within their community or from mainstream agencies” she adds. “There needs to be more work done to tackle the taboo surrounding mental health issues and raise awareness about how to manage it.”

What 14 British Muslims think about the Charlie Hebdo attack

A few days ago I spoke to BuzzFeed about my reaction to the horrendous attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

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This is what I wrote:

“As a British Muslim I have been shocked and dismayed by the Charlie Hebdo attacks. This shock has reverberated throughout communities in the UK, and with it comes a sense of dread of what is to come in the aftermath. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. But I am also fearful that these attacks will fuel anti-Muslim sentiments and hatred. I pray and hope, that we will stand united against violence and hatred.”

http://www.buzzfeed.com/hkesvani/13-british-muslims-on-what-they-think-about-the-ch-ne8u#.voQ4AM5mj

Talking about IS and appealing for the release of Alan Henning

Recent Media Appearances

 

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Last week I signed a letter calling for the release of British hostage Alan Henning. I signed the letter foremostly as a human being, wanting to do something, no matter how small or insignificant to try and help Alan. I have no delusions that #IS would care about what a bunch of British Muslims had to say, but still it worth a shot.

As I can explain in various media appearances, I also signed the letter because I wanted to make it absolutely clear to others that the majority of British Muslims, in no shape or form, support or sympathise with the actions of IS.

Here are the media appearances:

  1. Today programme on BBC Radio 4: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04gwchh (listen from approximately 2 hours, 16 minutes).
  2. BBC World Service: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p026g1gf (listen from approximately 26 minutes in).
  3. BBC Radio 5 Live: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04h7kh5 (listen from approximately 15 minutes in).
  4. BBC Radio London 94.9: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0262s6h (listen from approximately 15 minutes in).
  5. Channel 5 news: Akeela Ahmed: What IS is doing is not in the Isla…: http://youtu.be/ErWa7gf4IfU

Equality and Human Rights Commission calls for evidence on religion or belief issues

Below is information I received about a call evidence put out by the EHRC for evidence on possible discrimination in the workplace due to an individuals faith or beliefs. I have heard that there haven’t been many Muslim responses, which is a shame as I know that this is a issue keenly felt by some within the Muslim communities, especially by men with beards or women who wear the hijab, as well as Muslims who openly practice their faith at work.

It is worthwhile completing the survey to provide evidence / insight into the complexities when dealing with faith at work or in a public place. Hopefully this in turn will provide some nuance and balance to the debate. Read below for more information and links:

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently launched a major call for evidence to collect first hand experiences from individuals and organisations about how their religion or belief may have affected them in the workplace and in using the services and facilities they need in everyday life. The Commission knows that, despite a number of high profile cases involving the manifestation of religion or belief, very little is known about how frequently issues related to religion or belief occur in practice. To address this information gap we want to hear about the issues people face and how they find solutions to them. Particularly we want to hear about both negative and positive experiences which have occurred since 2010, including:

Has your religion or belief, or that of other people, affected your experiences in the workplace or the services you receive as part of your daily life? Or perhaps they impact on you as an employer or manager? If so, we want to hear from you, whether your experiences are good or bad.

We want to gather as much information as we can from employees, service users, employers, service providers, trade unions, legal advisors and religion or belief groups so that we can assess how a person’s religion or belief, or lack of it, is taken into account at work and when using services.

This major call for evidence is part of our three year programme to strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, to improve knowledge of what happens in practice and to make sure that the laws which are in place to protect everyone’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect are effective.

People can give their feedback at www.equalityhumanrights.com/religion.

Responses to the call for evidence can be made online until 14th October: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/about-us/our-work/key-projects/religion-or-belief-tell-us-about-your-experiences.

In October 2013, the Commission published Shared Understandings: a new EHRC strategy to strengthen understanding of religion or belief in public life, which can be found here: http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/about-us/about-commission/our-vision-and-mission/our-business-plan/religion-belief-equality/shared-understandings-new-ehrc-strategy-strengthen-understanding-religion-or-belief-public-life

British Asians with mental illnesses are being failed: we all must do more to overcome stigma and redress inequalities

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Mental illness is a growing challenge. One in four of us in the UK will suffer with a diagnosable mental illness. Like any community in Britain, Asians are not immune from mental health difficulties, but sadly individuals of South Asian origin suffering with mental illness are often invisible – not just in terms of failing to receive help, treatment or support from mainstream services, but even within our own communities.

The data available on British Asian communities is inconsistent and there are huge research gaps. Monitoring of mental health issues affecting British Asians remains poor. The vast national, regional, cultural, religious, linguistic and political differences between different Asian communities are often overlooked and homogenised in studies, under the catch-all term ‘Asian.’ As a result, many studies of mental health in South Asian communities are contradictory and inconclusive. Therefore more careful research and better monitoring of ethnic mental health issues are necessary.

In my experience there is no shortage of British Asians dealing with poor mental health. Rather than being overdiagnosed, ethnic South Asians with mental health difficulties are ignored and underdiagnosed. For example, young South Asian women have high rates of suicide – in 2008, the BBC reported that twice as many Asian women killed themselves compared to the rest of the population.

But herein lies the puzzle. Some earlier studies showed low rates of depression amongst young South Asian women and girls, compared to the rest of the population. How to explain this paradox?

Poverty and discrimination are more commonly experienced by BAME groups than the rest of the population, in particular individuals of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. High rates of unemployment, low socioeconomic status, and insecure and overcrowded housing heightens their vulnerability to poor mental health. For young South Asian women, the vulnerability can be even worse due to the double-whammy of being part of a disadvantaged group, while facing discrimination based on both their gender and ethnicity.

Certainly, a lack of awareness on mental health problems within some Asian communities plays a role. But over the years whilst working with Asian groups, I have repeatedly encountered a sense of marginalisation. Studies show that many BAME service users and their carers are dissatisfied with mainstream mental health services which they often perceive as misunderstanding them. They are also less likely to be offered a talking therapy as opposed to drug based therapy alone.

The myth that the genesis of a British Asian girl’s problems is located primarily within her culture and faith must be jettisoned. In reality, Asian girls often find it frustrating to hear professionals tell them that if they ‘left their culture behind, and lived their lives freely (as we do in the West)’ then they would be fine, with no thought for the confusing impact this advice could have on their identity and self-esteem. Of course, in the many cases where young girls are forced to do things they do not wish to, such as stay at home rather than go to university, these experiences adversely impact their mental health. But practitioners should treat each case on an individual basis, supporting the patient’s wishes, and wherever appropriate working with the family to overcome their issues.

But this requires policymakers and service providers to understand the cultural and social circumstances of Asian communities, and their reluctance to seek help. Many services struggle to meet the needs of their local Asian communities despite their high density.

In 2008, Antony Sheehan, chief executive of Leicestershire NHS Trust, said that government attempts to improve mental health services for the South Asian community had simply not worked: “We really should acknowledge the impact of institutional racism in mental health and wider health and social care services, in the same way it is recognised in the criminal justice system. The real issue is just how we’ve chosen not to connect with these communities.”

This is not to downplay the potentially negative impact of culture. Rather than visiting the GP, Asians suffering with emotional or psychological distress may rather visit the temple, mosque or gurudwara, seeking a spiritual or community-based solutions to their distress. Added to this is the stigma that surrounds mental health issues within our Asian communities.

One project worker based in Leicester, Harjit Sandhu, says that stigma is deadly. It can stop Asian people from going to see their GP for fear of being talked about. In one case parents stopped their 18 year old daughter with bipolar disorder from receiving specialist treatment because they felt “she had no mental illness” and labelling her with one would prevent her from getting married. Stigma can lead to self harm (which South Asian girls have the highest rates of compared to other minorities), isolation, and in worst cases suicide.

Mental health problems in British Asian communities are a challenge we must deal with collectively – both in terms of mainstream services and attitudes inside communities. If we allow our feelings of shame and denial to stop ourselves or those around us from seeking help, we risk failing young Asian people and creating a situation in which in twenty years time, Asians will be nearly 18 times more likely to end up hospitalised for a mental health disorder.

Mental health services need to ensure that the recommendations made by the Department of Health in its 2005 action plan ‘Delivering Race Equality’ are actually delivered. It’s widely recognised failure underscores the need for a deeper official inquiry into the state of our mental health services. Ultimately, better services require a different approach: engaging with communities effectively, in a way that is culturally and faith sensitive; providing better information to both communities and health professionals; better monitoring of ethnicity; and finally more research to understand the complex mutifacted factors affecting the mental health of Asians within the UK.

I wrote this piece in April for the  Asians UK magazine.

British values in Unequal Britain: inequalities faced by South Asians in the UK

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Prompted by the Trojan Horse affair, the Prime Minister David Cameron wrote that British values are “not optional; they’re the core of what it is to live in Britain”. The debate on British values, is not new, however, it focuses on minority communities, their identity and loyalties particularly those whose behaviours or attitudes are deemed unBritish.

This debate needs to be shifted away from problematising ethnic minority groups and questioning if they encompass British values, to how British society can ensure ethnic minorities can enjoy the same opportunities, as their White counterparts. By removing structural barriers they face and improving their lived experiences, opportunities and outcomes.

It is 2014 and yet if you are of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, in the UK, you are still most likely to suffer high levels of inequality, compared to your White counterparts and some other ethnic minority groups. Across all spheres of life, ethnic inequalities exist and individuals of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins are faring poorly. In areas of life such as employment, education, health, socioeconomic status and upward social mobility.

Understanding how social inequalities affect the experiences and outcomes of South Asians is complex. What particularly stands out, is just how disparate the rates of unemployment, poverty and social mobility are for Pakistani/Bangladeshi people compared to White people and other ethnic groups such as Indian or Chinese – who tend to fare better.

Sociologist Professor James Nazroo asserts that ethnic inequalities – and the prejudice, discrimination and racism that underlie them – have persisted to some significant degree. Census data shows that White men and women have maintained a consistent advantage over the past 20 years compared with men and women in almost all other ethnic groups.

If we examine unemployment, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CODE), found that people of Pakistani/Bangladeshi origins, particularly men, had much higher unemployment rates in the last three decades. During recessions, they would be hit the hardest and are still nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts.

Researchers at CODE also found that improving education amongst ethnic minorities did not lead to more job opportunities or upward social mobility. Notably surveys of highly qualified young British Muslim women highlighted employer discrimination for those who wear the hijab and niqab.

It is clear that the unequal experiences and outcomes faced by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis need to be addressed as soon as possible. The current debate of British values contributes to the racialisation of ethnic minority identities, identifying identity as the problem, whilst simultaneously ignoring and aggravating the underlying ethnic inequalities.

This was a short comment piece on inequalities within the South Asian communities, in the UK, which featured in Asians UK magazine. 

The mental health of British Muslim women

britishmuslimwomenmentalhealthThis is an edited version of a panel presentation that I gave to the Muslim Women’s Network (MWN), at their AGM on the 9th May 2014.

In 2009 the CQC conducted a the sixth and last census of the ethnicity of inpatient NHS and independent mental health and learning disability patients. This census revealed that 4% of patients reported themselves as Muslim. This, at the time was just above the representation of the British Muslim population. Additionally, this percentage only takes into account the number of Muslims with Mental Health difficulties in inpatient settings – it does not account for those who are being treated by their GP, or have not reported their poor mental health.

This gives you a flavour of the extent of mental health problems amongst Muslims in the UK.

Whilst I led the Muslim Youth Helpline mental health problems were the leading issue on the helpline, cutting across all other issues. Some 29% of calls related to mental health problems and these ranged from severe and enduring mental illnesses such as psychotic disorders to common mental disorders, like anxiety and depression.

Globally 1 in 4 of us are likely to suffer with a diagnosable mental health problem during our lifetime, so it is no surprise that British Muslims also suffer with mental health issues. However what I have observed is a concerning trend that British Muslims are becoming increasingly ill with poorer mental health outcomes. If this trend is left unchecked we will see significantly disproportionate numbers of British Muslims within inpatient care. Similarly to the disproportionately high number of Muslim prisoners in the UK.

My sense is that there are likely already high numbers of British Muslims dealing with mental health problems, however they are not being recognised and treated by mainstream services and organisations, thus neither are they getting the appropriate and adequate support. Often the most marginalised, with poor educational and employment outcomes, British Muslims are often hard to reach. And they are becoming progressively isolated as they are continually scrutinized and every aspect of their life is examined – from schooling to what they eat and wear. This scrutiny comes on top of the existing continual questioning of our identity – are you Muslim? British? English? And which one comes first.

A particular concern is that of the mental health of young South Asian British Muslim women. Data from NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) indicates that South Asian women do not necessarily suffer with higher rates of mental disorders. Yet research also tells us that South Asian girls in particular Muslim girls are at high risk of bulimia, self harm and suicide. However simultaneously, research examining the rates of mental health issues such as eating disorders indicates a low percentage of women using services.

Clearly there is a puzzle here – why are we seeing low numbers (or at least not significantly high?) of South Asian women presenting to services yet they are at risk of suicide and self harm? Through my experience of working within these communities, I can only conclude that, as mentioned previously, that mental health problems amongst these communities remain unrecognised and undetected. Also many young women speak of a fear of contacting mainstream services – a fear of being misunderstood, and a fear of their culture being blamed as the sole and root cause of their issues. There is huge mistrust and often young girls are stereotyped. Services often fail to understand the nuances of culture and faith. At one extreme they diagnose and manage young South Asian girls on the basis of broad stereotypes or on the other are scared of taking appropriate action when a young girl is in harms way in case they are culturally insensitive.

The following case studies (trigger warning) were presented to the audience, to provide a picture of the types of issues faced by British Muslim women in the UK. Details of the case studies have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the service users.

Hawra

Hawra is a British teenager from an Arab background who suffered various forms of abuse, including violent abuse, at the hands of her former boyfriend. After reporting him to the police and pursuing charges against him, he has continued to call and threaten her with violence if she does not drop the charges.

She did not receive any support from her family, despite informing them of the abuse, as they felt her having previously been in a relationship brought shame onto the family. As a result of this pressure, Hawra considered dropping the charges and marrying her ex-boyfriend. Hawra felt she needed an additional layer of support, to the support she was receiving from mainstream agencies, that would help reconnect her to her community and family.

Fahmida was British woman from a Pakistani background in her early twenties who was looking to move away out of her parental home. It became apparent that Fahmida had been beaten by her parents, and had suffered other forms of abuse, over a long period of time. She had hoped for many years that the abuse would stop as she became older. However when this did not happen she felt moving away would be the only recourse to stop the abuse.

Fahmida

Fahmida sought help through a support worker at university, but she felt that she also needed support from someone who understood her cultural and faith background. She has found the idea of moving out of home difficult as she was afraid she may be ostracised from her family and community as a result.

Fahmida wanted a safe space in which she could discuss her options with those who will understand the aspects of her problems related to her faith and cultural background, without fear of being either judged or misunderstood.

Hannah

Hannah was a 17-year-old Muslim girl living with her parents at home. One night she had an argument with her father and left her home at 2am, after which she was then attacked and raped. Hannah later found that she was pregnant and had an abortion. During her ordeal at no point did she disclose the rape attack either to the police, friends or family or to any other statutory professional. Neither did she seek help and emotional support whilst making the decision to have an abortion.

Hannah had eventually told her aunt about the rape. Her aunt responded negatively blaming Hannah for her ordeal. As a result Hannah felt isolated and had feelings of guilt and anxiety, saying that she felt “broken and empty”. Hannah stated that she couldn’t talk to someone face to face.

Sophie

Sophie was a 22 year old girl suffering with bipolar disorder. She had a very difficult relationship with her father and her family did not accept her condition as mental illness. She was receiving help from a psychiatrist who recommended a talking therapy known as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, however her parent’s did not agree to her attending this.

Sophie was raped in her childhood by a close relative, however her family swept this under the carpet and did not do anything about it. During Sophie’s early teens she started to get depressed, this affected her life at school when she started to truant and smoke cannabis. Since her late teens, she has been taking medication however her condition worsened with her being violently abusive towards her young brother and other people on the street. Her doctors knew about her behaviour and her psychiatrist has asked her to voluntarily admit herself into specialist care. If she didn’t do so then it is likely that she would be sectioned.

Recommendations

In short, mental health problems in British Asian communities are a challenge we must deal with collectively – both in terms of mainstream services and attitudes inside communities. If we allow our feelings of shame and denial to continue to stop ourselves or those around us from seeking help, then we risk not only failing young Asian people but also creating a situation in which in twenty years time, Asian people will be nearly 18 times more likely to end up hospitalised for a mental health disorder.

In the same vein, mental health services need to ensure that the recommendations made by the Department of Health in 2005 in it’s action plan ‘Delivering Race Equality’ are actually delivered. It’s widely recognised failure underscores the need for a deeper official inquiry into the state of our mental health services, and their chronic incapacity to cater sufficiently for BAME groups.

Ultimately, better services require a different approach: engaging with communities effectively, in a way that is culturally and faith sensitive, providing better information to both communities and health professionals, better monitoring of ethnicity, and finally more research to understand the complex multifaceted factors affecting the mental health of Asians and Muslims within the UK. Read More

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